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Nikola Jokić continues to impress as a tough shot maker in the playoffs

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The Nuggets needed Nikola Jokić to raise his game in the playoffs, and he has delivered.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Two Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Shot quality metrics are taking over the NBA.

As basketball players, coaches, and franchises continue searching for competitive advantages to help their teams, math and statistics have risen to the forefront of basketball innovation. Teams always looked at the numbers with the hope of learning something, but the analytics revolution has teams looking for creative solutions in the basketball data more than ever before. It’s why three-pointers are emphasized so often, why the spot up baseline two-pointer has been erased from basketball lexicon.

It’s also why what Nikola Jokić is currently doing should be considered incredible.

Through two games of the 2021 NBA playoffs, Joker is averaging 36.0 points per game to go with a 61.7 FG%. Taken as they are, those numbers are patently absurd. Jokić has shown a level of comfort being the primary scorer in a playoff series that we have never seen before. Often, he would previously feel guilty about the number of shots he was taking without getting others involved. Now, he understands that, without star guard Jamal Murray to help shoulder the burden, the best way for the Nuggets to win is often for Jokić to dominate as a scorer.

When Nikola Jokić goes to work in the post, his scoring game can truly be discussed as a work of art. Several of his moves against Jusuf Nurkić and Enes Kanter throughout the first two games involved a blend of touch, finesse, power, and poise that very few post scorers have ever had.

The Portland Trail Blazers have decided that, for the most part this playoff series, they would single cover Jokić on post ups and isolations so that Jokić wouldn’t be able to take advantage of his dominant passing abilities. In these situations, it is up to Jokić to create shots for himself fairly often. He has been up to the task so far and has converted at a high rate. His 70.0% True Shooting currently leads the NBA playoffs, and he’s doing so while sporting a 37.3% Usage Rate, a higher than normal number for Jokić and one of the highest numbers in the entire playoff field.

What is truly missed with Jokić though: the shots he takes and makes routinely are TOUGH. He makes many types of shots look relatively easy with his footwork, deft touch, and dominant nature, but make no mistake about it: Jokić is maintaining a higher percentage while consistently attempting some of the toughest shots in the NBA.

This is where shot quality comes in. Shot quality, also synonymous with “expected effective field goal percentage” on PBP Stats, measures just how likely players are to make shots on certain locations on the floor in a variety of situations. For example, take two separate 40% three-point shooters. One of them only shoots wide open threes out of catch-and-shoot situations, while the other takes half of his three-point shot attempts off the dribble with a defender challenging his shot. The two players convert those shots at the same level, but one is drastically more difficult than the other, making some 40% shooters completely different (and perhaps more valuable) than others.

The defining trait of Jokić’s two postseason games thus far, and frankly his entire career, has been his ability to make difficult shots at a high rate.

Without Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and P.J. Dozier is the rotation to help create some easier looks for Jokić and share some responsibility, Jokić is being asked to shoulder a heavy burden as a shot maker. Facundo Campazzo doesn’t draw a ton of attention as a pick and roll partner away from Jokić. Monte Morris draws a little more but is coming off the bench. Austin Rivers isn’t a true playmaker for others. Michael Porter Jr. is still trying to find his way as a scorer in these playoffs, let alone a playmaker for others.

It all falls to Joker, and the Serbian big man has responded with some excellent efficiency in the face of difficult circumstances.

This isn’t a new thing for Nikola Jokić though. He has been doing this for his entire career. Here are Jokić’s expected shot quality versus actual shooting percentages in both the regular season and playoffs throughout his six year NBA career, according to PBP Stats:

Nikola Jokić is one of the best tough shot makers in the NBA today

Year Expected eFG% Actual eFG% Differential
2015-16 49.0 53.5 +4.5
2016-17 49.0 60.5 +10.5
2017-18 48.0 55.4 +7.4
2018-19 49.0 54.5 +5.5
2018-19 Playoffs 47.0 54.8 +7.8
2019-20 47.0 56.5 +9.5
2019-20 Playoffs 47.0 58.0 +11.0
2020-21 49.0 60.2 +11.2
2020-21 Playoffs 46.0 67.0 +21.0

The Nuggets know Nikola Jokić is an incredible player, but to have the smallest differential between expected and actual eFG% be Jokić outperforming expectations by 4.5% on the season...there just aren’t a lot of players like him. It’s also clear that Jokić’s shotmaking doesn’t fall off in the playoffs like it does for so many others. Notable superstars struggle to maintain efficiency in playoff environments. Most players see a downtick in efficiency when facing more difficult competition. If anything, Jokić has risen to new heights when entering the playoffs throughout his six year career.

The playoffs are all about navigating difficult situations and finding solutions. The Nuggets found themselves in a difficult situation after Game 1. Jokić went off as a scorer and played really well, but he wasn’t able to create for others as well from the low post, generating just one assist. Michael Malone and the Nuggets decided to shift Jokić to initiating shots from above the break as a passer and operating near the free throw line as a scorer. Placing Jokić at the top of the key opened up new angles for the Nuggets offense, but it also continued to place pressure on Jokić as a shotmaker. As a seven footer, creating off the dribble in isolation over 15 feet away from the basket is harder than getting to a post hook from six feet away or countering with other moves. Placing Jokić at the free throw line turns him into a LeBron James or Kobe Bryant type as an isolation specialist, and he continues to deliver anyway.

There will eventually be some regression to the mean, but the way Jokić has comported himself as a scorer with his responsibilities at an all-time high should give Nuggets fans confidence that he can continue to deliver in difficult spots. He has a history of doing so, both statistically and anecdotally. The numbers speak for themselves, and he has a game-winning basket in the closing seconds of a Game 7 over Rudy Gobert last year to prove it. He’s a stone cold killer, and though he doesn’t look like it, he’s one of the premier shot makers in the NBA today.

If you single cover Nikola Jokić, you will reap the consequences. He’s that good.

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